Monday, April 30, 2012

Religious Recovery: How Christian Science taught this kid to lie

I know that many people are comforted by religion and the community of a church. I believe adults have this right as long as it doesn't interfere with others (or my tax dollars). My concern is for kids raised in oppressively religious lifestyles that jeopardize their health. Yes, as an ex-Christian Scientist physically and permanently hurt as a child by the methods of my church, I have a very dark view of organized, applied religion. But years before I contracted osteomyelitis (which eventually led to my above-knee amputation as an adult) and beyond all the inherent suffering in trying to use only prayer to heal, my church taught me to lie. 
Religion starts with the premise, You aren't OK the way you are! Depending on your church, religion says, You're a sinner--You're mortal--You're tempted... Christian Science dismisses any reality of the physical universe and material senses, so I learned, You're believing the lie of mortality and sickness!  Religion declared I had to follow its rules or I'd suffer the consequences.

I did what I was told. I was raised in an insulated Christian Science family where everyone had been raised in the church. We lived near both my grandmothers, an aunt and uncle, a grown cousin and her kids. We lived within twenty miles of The Mother Church in Boston, command central. One relative was a practitioner who was paid to pray for healing. My parents' friends were church members.

I memorized and recited; I believed and tried to understand; I monitored my thoughts. Christian Science is all about consciousness and perception. My consciousness had to look beyond the physical and concentrate on the spiritual so I'd reflect God's perfection and not mortal error. Self was an indulgent concept; self-denial was a virtue. Wanting was selfish because God's plan for me was more perfect than any of my own. Gratitude brought healing and spiritual good was always present.

Non-Scientists had to be humored. From the age of four or five, I understood this. What the human world called truth could be the direct opposite of capital-T Truth in Christian Science. My job was to give the answer that applied to the particular context. If someone at school asked, Who are you? I said, I'm Elisabeth and I love horses.

But in Sunday school, or on the phone to our practitioner when I was sick, I said, I'm the image and likeness of God.

It gave me a double-jointed thought process. I could believe what I needed. Truth became relative. I was afraid to give my opinion; my priority was to find the appropriate response. If I wanted something badly enough to barge ahead and claim it in a humanly selfish way, I was wracked with guilt afterwards. It was safer to be "correct" than to be honest. After a while I wasn't really sure what I felt or believed.

I was still a fervent Christian Scientist at twenty-seven when I began prenatal visits for my first pregnancy. The hospital midwives terrified me. I agonized over the medical questionnaire because I didn't know what illnesses my relatives had or died from (sickness was steeped in secrecy and rarely diagnosed) and because I was afraid real descriptions of my cycles and symptoms wouldn't be what the doctors wanted. What were the right answers??

Mission accomplished: I'd learned well. Underneath I was completely inadequate.

A few years later I got into psychotherapy. Therapy begins with the premise, You are OK-- there's a reason--trauma, neglect, biochemistry--that you act certain ways! Like horses, few of us are dangerous or disturbed from birth. Behavior is usually caused by circumstances. I'd worked with difficult horses long enough to allow myself the same benefit of the doubt. Maybe I wasn't bad or lacking. Maybe I wasn't inherently a flawed failure.

It took a very, very long time to figure out who I was, what I felt and what I believed. But I stopped playing by religion's rules. Today I can fill out a financial or medical form and state the facts without being afraid. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

The ponies in the photo are Jesse and Buttercup, back in Lexington around 1975 when I was still a two-knee fish. ;-)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The first chapter of Pray Animal, my memoir

My Webmaster, Lee, just posted chapter one of my memoir, PRAY ANIMAL, on my website. Take a look and see what you think. Love to hear your comments!

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Knights Who Say Knee (Brace)

My knee is tired. I only have the one, and it's been complaining a lot. In turn, I complain to my friends, relatives and horses. Six years ago, a year before my above-knee amputation, an orthopedic specialist sent me to an orthotist (vocab word: will be on the final) for this unloading brace. 

Back around 1975 when I had two normal legs I realized I was bowlegged: when my feet were together my knees had several inches of daylight between them. I rode horses constantly so I claimed it had made me bowlegged like a cowboy, but it was probably just heredity.

Then my left leg caught a bacterial bug that turned into osteomyelitis, which is always bad, and worse if you belong to a hardcore Christian Science family in the Boston area at a time when it was legal to pray for your kid instead of take them to a hospital. (It's still legal to do this in 38 states. Not in Massachusetts anymore.)

The infection destroyed my left knee. It fused solid in a bent position perfect for riding horses but bad for walking. I did both for thirty-five years until my left foot and right (normal) knee were trashed. The amputation solved the foot problem. Now, five years later, my remaining knee is trashed. The already off-kilter joint grinds towards the inside. (I've been told I'm hard on my equipment.) The unloading brace pushes the outside of the joint to take pressure off the inside. And yeah, it's as bulky and annoying and "Run, Forrest, run!" as it looks. I only wear it a few hours a day.

(It also feels like a second prosthetic leg. Wow. Let me just say I'm grateful to be only a single amp. I love my trashed, organic knee. My daughter tried on my brace one time and hated it. Come over and try it sometime.)

Knee replacement surgery is probably on my horizon. It's a bad deal for an AK amp because it'll leave me pretty much without a leg to stand on. On a wonderful amputee website called Stumps R Us I posted the question: any AKs gone through it? Recently a fellow amp wrote to tell me about his knee replacement this past winter. I was hoping for happy magical news, but it was what I'd expected. Endurance, patience and nose-to-the-grindstone PT. So. We'll see.

In the meantime, have you hugged your limbs today?  :-)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Brewster Blazes the Trail

I was sixteen in 1978, still using a crutch to walk. I'd been riding my fractious mare Flicka since I'd climbed out of my wheel chair the year before. Flicka had been out to pasture the months I was sick; now she was spoiled. I'd climb onto her bare back from one of the New England stone walls near the barn and cling to her mane, but I was afraid to really push her. She pinned her ears and snapped at my leg when I tried to ride her down the trail. As my leg grew stronger I could use my saddle and put weight on my foot in the stirrup. Now I wanted the horse shows and trail rides I'd had with Flicka before the bone disease attacked my leg. I wanted to ride in the Lexington Patriot's Day parade and the Middlesex County 4H fair. Flicka had been the horse I was going to do these things with, and much more. I was supposed to own her forever. But at sixteen, I knew I needed a steadier horse if I wanted to be a rider.

I steeled myself. I sold my dream, my spirited frosty mare. And I bought a little gelding I named Brewster.

His papers said he was twelve years old. He had a fancy name too long for a funny silver-gray horse with a mane like a donkey's and an excess of spots. He wasn't particularly schooled but I liked his hardheadedness. He fit my criteria: a user-friendly mount that could handle suburban traffic, gallops on trails by the highway and jumping rock walls in the woods. He was no plug; one time he reared and cracked me in the face with his head and I chipped a tooth. But usually he was mellow enough for pony rides at local fundraisers, and he was sound, sturdy and solid.

The next summer we launched into local horse shows. Determined and nervous, I was self-conscious about being that girl with the limp. But mounted, my limp didn't show. I'd abandoned my last crutch on my seventeenth birthday and wrestled down the despair that still dogged me. I rode Brewster every single day that year. An energetic 4H leader named Ginnie volunteered to coach me. She was young and fresh out of 4H herself, part drill sergeant, part big sister. Ginnie trucked Brewster to empty show rings so I could practice; she directed me to ride the small circles she claimed were the key to success, and incorporated telephone poles on the ground for us to jump.

She was benevolent enough to not be disappointed with my performance in the show ring. The county had a dozen 4H clubs and competition was fierce in classes of two or three dozen entries. Brewster was a tad lazy inside a ring; he'd rather trot down a long shady road. We only snagged the occasional ribbon that summer. I was just thrilled to be part of the scene, one of the riders again.

The county fair in August was a 3-day affair with a crowded schedule and a hundred horses stabled or camped out on the grounds. Ginnie and I slept in her van with Brewster in a makeshift stall between the pines overlooking the rings. Brewster and I only managed a single sixth-place rosette for the whole show. Our neighbors in the pines were a club of rich girls whining and complaining about their flashy thoroughbreds. They ignored me and my humble pony; we were no threat whatsoever. Ginnie was still a fierce enough 4H competitor to growl about spoiled girls, expensive tack and horses that impressed the judges. I  turned my back on the girls' shrieks and laughter to hug Brewster's neck. He was perfect. He even had an E made of spots on his rump, like a backwards 3, exactly the way I signed my name Elisabeth. He was monogrammed.

Ginnie called me later that fall when the show season was ending. "There's a twenty-mile competitive trail ride this weekend."

"OK," I said uncertainly. "Do you think Brewster's fit enough for twenty miles?"

"Of course he is. You'll probably win."

It seemed unlikely. But some friends and I had just captured an armload of trophies and ribbons at a gymkhana (games on horseback). I was feeling more confident. I signed myself up, got directions and found someone to trailer us since Ginnie was busy.

Lo and behold, when I saddled Brewster for the start, there were all those pesky squealing  girls on thoroughbreds; their 4H club was running the ride. And here were Brewster and I, looking shaggy in the crisp October day, not slick like show horses. But this time, the advantage was decidedly on rugged.

We rode several hours in the morning and a bit more after a lunch break. Brewster stayed fresh at the trot. I loosened his girth when we walked so his sweaty chest would dry. He splashed through the streams and chugged up and down hill. The judges monitored heartbeats and breathing rates at the checkpoints but it wasn't strenuous. It was a blast. And Brewster and I aced it. When the ribbons were handed out at the end of the day, we were first in horsemanship, second in overall condition. I wished Ginnie had been there. The thoroughbred girls peered down, probably wondering where they'd seen us before.

Brewster gave me back my riding confidence after Flicka. He was one reason I went to England the next year to become an instructor. He turns up in my dreams sometimes. And I think about him every April, especially on the twenty-third, the birthday Shakespeare shared with a sweet spotted horse registered as Scott's Gallant Lad. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blame & Forgiveness: the Ultimate Cage-fight (Part 3 of 3)

For thirty years I never imagined I needed to blame or forgive my parents for anything. After all, there was no problem. Oh, that? Just a stiff knee. OK, it was completely rigid. Yeah, I kept it covered. Because of the scars. I had an infection when I was a kid. Stayed in bed. For a year. Missed two years of school. No, I never saw a doctor. Why did I need a doctor? I was healed by Christian Science. My limp never slowed me down.

Of course it didn't slow me down. I was a horse with its tail on fire.

My flight kept me just ahead of my past until I became a parent. I began to realize what parenting entailed after my daughter was born. It was sobering when my own history began to catch up with me. My emotions overloaded and finally halted me in a way my wrecked leg never had. I got into therapy and started on the excruciatingly slow work of sifting through all the pieces of my life. Including examining the choices my parents had made.

Yes, they'd both been raised in hard-core Christian Science families. Yes, they each had a sister who'd had a seemingly "miraculous" healing during their childhoods. Yes, they were isolated and insulated by church-member relatives and friends, plus a gung-ho Christian Science practitioner (who, when I spoke to him six years ago, still declared I'd been healed as a kid) and the supportive environment in Massachusetts at a time when such treatment was legal, the same area where Mary Baker Eddy originally set up shop. I understood this.

But with a parent's perspective, I knew there was no good excuse. Whether consciously or passively, my parents had allowed me to assume it was my responsibility to be perfectly healed (the only kind of healing Christian Science advocates) from the time I was thirteen. This was wrong. I would never want my daughters to feel their childhood health and circumstances were up to them. I'm the mother, the adult, their protector and enforcer and bodyguard. I accepted that weight and gift. It's an honor to carry the love and worry of having a child. I don't believe children are required to forgive their parents.

So gradually I shifted that burden off myself, especially as my leg began to fail. I understood my parents. But I didn't think I could or should have to forgive them. Our relationship was OK. They were supportive when I considered amputation, when my knee proved to be beyond replacement surgery. I empathized with my mother and father. I just wasn't sure I could really love them.

As I worked on my emotional tangle, I was also in the process of changing horse training methods. I was an effective freelance trainer and instructor who specialized in sorting out backyard family horses. I'd started out a seat-of-the-pants pony rider myself; later I was certified in England, taught lessons in any scenario you can imagine, and galloped race horses, so I could knock sense into any grumpy plug I met. I thought of it as a show'em-who's-boss technique, not without finesse, but using whatever force was necessary. Practical professionalism sometimes means shortcuts or quick fixes. It was what I'd learned.

Except I'd gotten sour after years trying to leverage and control a creature that instinctively fights to survive. Especially as I recognized how I'd tried to force myself into a mental pretzel to bring an impossible state of harmony.

This method of training hinges on understanding a horse's motivation, needs and fears. It's been called horse whispering but like a lot of things, it only looks magical until you see what's happening. It's more like horse obedience than breaking (a word I never liked). It's a relationship built on trusting a horse to act like a horse.

The more I honestly saw horses and the less I projected wrong assumptions or attributes, the more I realized what I'd done all those years. With crops and whips, spurs, tie-downs and gag-bits, equipment and muscle. I hadn't meant to be cruel. But sometimes I had been. I'm not sure which was worse--my casual indifference all the times I put a stronger bit in the mouth of a horse that might have bolted only in fear, or when I'd selfishly decided to push a young horse to prepare for show schedule. I just wish I could go back and do things differently. As if wishing makes any difference.

But as I handled horses with my new expectations--clumsily, then with more assurance--horses responded whether I had an established relationship with them or not. They had no agenda, no grudges or blame. They might be wary or jaded if they'd been spurred or muscled around in the past, but my consistent correct behavior was all they asked for. They could still be tough or resistant, but it wasn't personal. I didn't bring my own baggage into the corral. I played by horse rules of etiquette and the horses understood. They didn't care what I'd done, only what I was doing now. Their grace felt like a blessing. It humbled me.

It dawned on me that change itself is the key. It cultivates a state of gratitude and appreciation far beyond wimpily letting someone get away with something or whatever my concept of forgiveness used to be.

Change. I watched my parents struggle with their own bodies as they aged. Each had surgery for the first time (with varying amounts of willingness). After being doused in Christian Science all their lives, they don't speak the language of medical reality very well. I was dragged in as the reluctant interpreter. My mother and I shared a roller coaster of shouting and sobbing matches that wore off a lot of rough edges and allowed us to find something approaching normal, whatever that is. My father is much more private, but we've had our moments: I even screamed at him and smashed a coffee mug on the floor one time. (Note to my therapist: found that anger at my parents.) My frozen emotions broke loose and I felt exhilarated, even while I despaired of ever resolving my family's issues. At least I loved my father and mother enough to battle in the open. I'd been afraid I didn't. The giant glass elephant of our past fell from its pedestal and shattered into pieces we could lift. 

One day I found myself hugging my mother, my father. Saying, "I love you." I couldn't remember the last time I'd done it. And they told me they love me. Now I can say it whenever I see them. I hear the emotion in their voices as they say, "I love you." It's different now for all of us.It wasn't like a bolt of lightning. It was a gradual recognition my horses taught me to watch for: the smallest sign of the try, the step in the right direction, the search for the safety of our herd.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Blame & Forgiveness: the Ultimate Cage Fight (Part 2 of 3)

OK. My first child was born the day before my twenty-eighth birthday. She rocked my world. She shook my foundation like nothing before--not bone disease, not the rigid family silence of denial, not arrogant statements of idealism by our church. All my baby did was arrive when I gave birth to her. But she was perfect. She changed everything I believed about perfection being only spiritual.

As I held her in my arms,she asked what my standards were. Her presence asked what I would be willing to do for her. Her existence wondered what I would settle for. She shifted the foundation of my life the way a blade of grass cracks concrete to reach sunlight. I knew I would do anything for this brand-new creature. She was more important than all else. I made a conscious decision: if I ever had doubts about her health, I would take her straight to a doctor. I was the adult; if my child needed medical care she'd have it, Christian Science or no. I was her mother and there was nothing I would not sacrifice for her, no element in my life so sacred I wouldn't question it for her sake.

A few years later I abandoned Christian Science altogether. I got divorced and started seeing a therapist. I lived in the same area, not far from my parents who often babysat for me. One night my little girl was crying when I picked her up after work. “Mommy, my ear hurts.”

My mother's face was drawn and bleak. As far back as I could remember, she would have responded by saying something like, She's a spiritual idea--she can't really be sick--  We'd been hard-core Christian Scientists. Which was why I limped on a fused leg. And why I'd started going to therapy for depression and panic. And why we never, ever talked about the horror of those years I was a young teenager when we only prayed about the bone disease that almost killed me.

My mother said, “Can you do something for her?” But this time she meant, Can you stop her pain—now?

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s probably an ear infection.” It felt bold, rude, to state  the discord we’d always denied. “I’ll pick up some children’s Tylenol on the way home. Tomorrow I’ll take her to the doctor.” I held my little girl on my hip. She clung to me, her tear-streaked face pressed against my neck. The idea of telling her that what she felt wasn’t real made me nauseous.

“I‘m glad you know what to do.” My mother’s face crumpled. My father was a shadow behind her. They'd been raised by powerhouse single mothers fervent in the Christian Science mindset. This lifestyle was all my parents had ever known. But I could see them struggle too, now that I'd begun to question our lives. And their decisions. 

The next day as I stood in line to pick up the prescription, I thought, This is what parents do. They find a way to stop their children's pain. They keep trying until something works. Or at least they're supposed to. 

My therapist asked me, "Where's your anger at your parents?" She asked this year after year. I'd say, "Oh. I don't know." But it was there, percolating under my thick skin. I'd cultured toughness to counter the failure I'd always felt at having failed to be "healed" in Christian Science. And as I began to see who I was, I knew I was hard hard hard, a former child soldier with that thousand-yard stare. Depression could knock me into a fetal position for days at a time. My employment history was sketchy and unreliable. I jerked in my sleep from PTSD. I'd assumed the responsibility of my own survival--the perfect "healing" I was supposed to achieve when I was thirteen and fourteen and fifteen, the spiritual healing my parents had expected. Ironically, this strength and  responsibility had made me passive and codependent in relationships, marriages...and of course with my parents.

By the time I had a second daughter (ten years after the first) I'd come to believe certain things about parenting. I made sure my girls knew I'd go to bat for them anytime, anywhere. I'm the pit-bull hell-parent they can depend on. I run interference and advocate when it's needed. I'm my kids' firewall: to get to them, you have to get through me. I've realized how hard I can be, and tried to not to be hard on them. (It's hard!) In turn, they've made me grow in a way that nothing else could. My insistence on a higher quality of life for them has taught me that I deserve good too.

"So how's your relationship with your parents??"

During this time, my connection to my parents remained close. But it gnawed at me. I was in therapy for over a dozen years and my therapist was right: I couldn't put my past ordeal into perspective until I confronted it like a frightened horse shying at a rock. Being a parent made me see that my own parents had abdicated human responsibility to a "higher power." They'd been raised to believe  Christian Science prayer was my only hope during my childhood osteomyelitis. But I finally looked straight at what their decisions--conscious or passive--had done to me. I lived with the consequences which were physical (my scarred, bent, fused leg that I eventually had amputated) and emotional: my codependency, depression, mood swings, broken relationships and inability to hold a job.

I hit bottom. The bedrock of my feelings was apathy. I wasn't sure I could ever love my parents. I didn't hate them; I understood who they were and why they'd done these things. I was fluent in Christian Science; it had been my first language and the way I interpreted the world around me. But my second language became Reality. Its hard pan floor was my bottom line: children should never be expected to forgive their parents. They should never be put in that position. The act of being a parent assumes total responsibility even for bad luck and unexpected disaster. I believed parents had to cowboy up and accept this.

I'd begun to let go of the inappropriate burden I'd taken up in childhood and give it back to my mother and father. 

But I wasn't ready to just call it even.

At least, not until horses gave me a reason. Not until horses showed me the grace in forgiving. Not until horses let me see it--and need it--from the other side.

Stay tuned for Part 3. This photo of my daughters and me was taken a few years ago. (Now, of course, they're both taller than me...)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pardon the Interval

Sorry about this interim. I haven't returned to my cage-fight soliloquy yet and it just occurred to me that I could apologize for the delay. I appreciate your interest in this muttering I call my blog. I've written stories, journals and poems steadily since I was ten years old or so, which means four decades now...but I've never had readers until lately. I wasn't expecting to love blogging but I do. There, I've said it. Heart on my sleeve.

Thought I'd write today/tonight's a blue one. So perhaps tomorrow. Not to worry. Got lots to say about children, parents, blame, consequences, horses, journeys, choices, Being Tough and yeah, forgiveness.

Be well.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Blame & Forgiveness: the Ultimate Cage-Fight (Part 1 of 3)

Everyone asks me the same question after they've heard my history. They say tentatively, " how's your relationship with your parents now?" They ask it haltingly.

Now I answer, "It's the best it's ever been. I love them."

I say this with all honesty. My parents live a dozen miles from me here in the wilds of upstate New York. They moved here twenty-some years ago to watch their grandchildren grow up. And watch me come to terms with my life. Our lives. My progress seems to have allowed them to stretch past their previous comfort levels that were as rigid as the leg I had amputated. They are getting older and I'm glad we've found this balance. 

There were times I didn't think I ever would. I used to think I would never want to try.

What is your relationship with your parents...I didn't have to answer that question until I was in my mid-thirties. Until then I refused to identify any rift in my life, definitely not written in the jagged scars on my fused-solid leg. I bobbed and limped with every step I took in my twenties, in my late teens. After I'd ditched the crutches, which was after I'd climbed out of the wheelchair, which was after I escaped the bed in a small room of our house where I spent most of the year I was fourteen. 1976. The bicentennial year celebrated the nation's declaration of freedom. One of those more recent freedoms was a "blue" law that permitted parents to choose prayer over medicine in treating a child's illness or injury. It set the bone disease free to ravage my childhood and my sanity as well as my left leg.

As second generation Christian Scientists surrounded by church-member friends, relatives and practitioners (who pray for money), my parents were cocooned and isolated. Their confidence that my sudden knee infection would be healed was tempered (I sensed this) by terror that a doctor would amputate my leg immediately. The worse my condition grew, the more imperative it was for me to be healed. The Christian Science church claims it has a method--a "science"--that doesn't pressure the individual to heal herself. Especially a child. But. As I outlasted the disease, as I gained weight and the horrible gouges in my limb began to close, when my knee eventually bore my weight without any sign of bending or flexing, I accepted it was my fault I hadn't been  completely healed.

I carried that weight for twenty years. I remained a devout Christian Scientist the way a battle-scarred soldier might refuse to renounce the war that destroyed her body. If you give all you have for a cause that means nothing, how can you go on? And I still expected to be healed. Gradually, or maybe instantaneously. Christian Science promised my physical body wasn't real but changeable as any dream. Healing would erase my little incident of being bedridden, my odd gait and scars, like a bad debt forgiven.

"What happened to your leg?" This was as far as the conversation got for many years.

"Oh, I had an infection when I was a kid and it's stiff." Sometimes I added, "I was healed by Christian Science."

I never held still long enough for anyone to argue. I said my activity was my true spiritual being shining through. At fifteen I climbed onto my horse from the crutches before I could walk unaided. I completed a grueling course of stable work, riding and teaching in England to be certified a British Horse Society Assistant Instructor at eighteen. At twenty-two I married a dairy farmer, did chores, exercised racehorses, and square danced at the Grange on Saturday nights. I was healed!...or mostly. My firewall was solid. My family and I had our story straight. We stuck to it. There was no blame.

Just the black rot in my heart that ate at me like the infection had. The need to be normal. The ache to run. The fear that today was always the last day of my physical freedom.

My emotional lid was screwed on tight. Super-glued. Sealed in concrete. It was a time capsule that could never see the light of day. Because something was alive in there. If I hit my thumb with a hammer, I screamed and swore. Pain equaled rage disproportionate to the moment. Rage equaled pain. And both bled back in my self-hatred. But asking if it was related to the shiny scar-tissue on my rigid leg was like looking at the sun. The blinding light of reason turned my healing to ash, fallout of a treatment that had approached human sacrifice.

Of me. As a child. By my parents. Overseen by a church. Protected by a state law.

Programmed as I was, my reflexes reassured me. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, always had an answer. FATHER. Eternal Life...commonly called God... And, MOTHER. God...My parents were the mortal manifestation of God's care. God is the parent Mind, and man is God's spiritual offspring. My parents loved me as a spiritual idea.

Then in my late twenties I had a baby. I became a parent. And everything changed.

To be continued.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Stump Love

I love my left leg, the one that isn't there anymore, the one I feel but can't see past mid-thigh since it was amputated. I've had a love-hate relationship with it my whole life. Now it's just love.

My left leg betrayed me by swelling up one night when I was almost fourteen. I couldn't understand why my body would do this. It had accomodated my running, jumping, riding, and climbing trees or ropes; it made it easy to believe my family's Christian Science doctrine that a body was only the manifestation of thought, a mortal representation of my limitless spiritual being.

I lay in bed for almost a year with the infection. It felt as if a stake had been plunged through my leg into the mattress; the pain was excruciating even when I lay motionless. I tried not to look at the running sores. I couldn't bear to watch my leg being destroyed. (This is called religion-based medical neglect of children, relying on prayer for a child's healthcare rather than medicine. It's still legal in 38 US states. I'll be writing more about this. You bet I will.)

Over eighteen months my leg fused itself in a bent position. It was scarred to the bone in places, deformed and atrophied from mid-thigh to mid-shin. I kept it wrapped with an Ace bandage. I was deeply ashamed that I hadn't been healed perfectly. Ten years passed before I could bring myself to stop wearing bluejeans with my swim suit and just wrap my leg.

Shame is a powerful force. Walking with a bobbing stride on a bent leg was not something I could hide like my scars. With every public step I took, I felt exposed as a spiritual failure. In turn, with each step I was more determined than ever to find my perfect healing.

Flash forward twenty years to my first x-rays. I'd quit Christian Science and stopped trying to pray my body into perfection. Othopedic specialists diagnosed the disease as osteomyelitis, a bacterial bone infection that had run its course. They were impressed how I'd coped and how fit I was. They had no solution; my knee had fused solid like the limb of a tree. How long until I couldn't compensate anymore? They shrugged. "Stay active!" they said, and shook my hand. I walked out of the hospital that day feeling absolved of a life sentence for first-degree mortality. I had a human history. I was a survivor, not a failure.

I stopped hating my leg after that. I appreciated it even as my foot gave out and needed surgery. I wasn't afraid to look when the podiatrist examined his handiwork every few weeks, not even at the wires that stuck out of my toes. (His staff was dazzled at my skills on crutches. They said I was the best they'd ever seen.)

My body demanded an end to my limp five years ago. In the hospital after my amputation, I was anxious how I'd feel when I saw my stump. But when the doctor unwrapped the Ace bandage to take a peek, I saw a neat seam of staples that ran around the end of my abbreviated thigh, simple and inoffensive. (There were 31 staples; it was almost exactly 31 years since I'd first been hobbled by circumstance, religion and disease.) Now, walking with the prosthesis, my stump has gained more thigh muscle than it had all the years when the joint was frozen. Not a huge amount, but muscle is developing normally--after 30 years!

During my physical therapy when I learned to walk with the prosthetic leg, my PT looked at the last x-rays of my weird, late leg. He pointed out something amazing: the knee cap had mostly dissolved. Little channels of bone ran down through the bent joint, reinforcing the structure. He said, "All the activity you did caused your leg to rebuild the bone to strengthen your leg." My body had rerouted its normal function to support an unexpected form. I felt a rush of love for my battered, misused, lost leg.

My stump is the latest incarnation of my leg. It does its job, whether wearing a hydraulic leg or bobbing in time to my crutches. It's different not having a body part I'm ashamed of; I keep thinking there's something I'm forgetting, but it's only the shadow of a habit. The absence of that shame is a stronger sensation than my missing limb.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

You Say Prosthetist

I made a conscious choice at a fork in the road on my way to amputee-hood. This was at the pronunciation of the word "prosthetist."

I like words: they're the medium I've clung to and invested in, self-taught as I am. I've collected them, tried to spell them right, and annoy my daughter by insisting "LOOK IT UP!" when she asks what one means. (And with Google around this is way too easy. When I was a kid we looked up vocab words in old-fashioned paper books called dictionaries. And it was uphill both ways.)
This is the language of a journey into elective amputee-ism. My auto-fused knee from the untreated osteomyelitis (bacterial bone infection) thirty years before was called an ankylosed joint. The surgery I was offered by doctors--to break and fuse it straight to give me a stiff, organic peg-leg--is called arthrodesis. The amputation I opted for is transfemoral, or above-knee: AK, or AKA, as in above-knee amputee. (As opposed to BK = below-knee, or "baloney amputee" as my daughter says, or as we snotty knee-less ones sniff, "Flesh-wound.")

So I began to talk to prosthetists, the folk who make the prosthesis (pl. prostheses). I just wasn't sure how to pronounce their job title. You can accent the second syllable, prosTHETist, which sounds like prosTHEsis. Or you can say PROS-thetist, which isn't too bad but seems to take longer, and I've lost most of my physical quickness but I can damn sure make up for it by talking fast.

Or you can say PROStheTIST, which mid-word, sounds to me like the target word is prostitute. As in, "I have to go see a PROS...theTIST tomorrow..." I've said this. I've seen (OK, maybe imagined) my friends' startled eyes widen, at least momentarily. I might be a little oversensitive. 

When it was decision time, mine wasn't even close. I say prosTHETist.

Here's a peek inside the lair of the fabled prosthetist. I've worked with several in five years, all with different approaches, but the rooms look the same. A chair to sit in while you put on and then take off (and put on, and take off, and put on...) said fake leg as it is adjusted. A mirror to force you to see how much weight you've gained since you lost that two-legged quickness. Parallel bars in case you want to do a little gymnastic routine, or maybe just not fall of the new leg. (Pronounce their job however you will, prosthetists as a whole get really excited and unhappy when you fall down.) Note the little wrench on the stool. The stool has wheels so the prosTHETist can zip around the linoleum and swoop in to tighten or loosen one of a million tiny fittings while scrutinizing your gait with the intensity of a good farrier.

This photo was taken by my older daughter at my first socket fitting five years ago this month. The socket was a step in the fitting process, and I don't think there was even a knee on that leg, just a pylon. I'd spent thirty years limping on a fused leg bent at a weird angle slightly straighter than 90 degrees; not a day of that time passed without my wondering, imagining, envying, and yearning to stand up straight. I emailed the picture to everyone. A friend who's known me for twenty-plus years and survived a lot of mutual horse adventures declared, "That's a new pony smile."

For me it was a toss-up: which was more amazing, that I could finally stand up straight? Or that my daughter could take such a photo with a phone??

You can decide for yourself how to pronounce the name of the dude or chick who makes fake limbs. But first get cracking on those vocab words. They'll all be on the final.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Horse Goddesses

 At the red barn down the road from the house where I grew up in the 1970’s, the teenage girls were fearless. In my eyes, those girls lived on another plane. They rode bareheaded with their hair blowing. They rode barefoot, smoking cigarettes and listening to transistor radios in shirt pockets. They always knew what to do. They were free. They were goddesses. I worshipped them when I was at the barn, out of the sight and hearing of my family and church.

A horse goddess relied on instinct and experience. Her techniques might be ignorant or rough but her balance and skill were genuine; it’s impossible to gallop bareback badly. A goddess reined her horse off the mini-bike trails to sail over the endless New England stonewalls that rambled through the woods and hemmed the roads. She might let her boyfriend climb up double, but he was an accessory as changeable as bellbottom jeans. After a fight with her parents she'd hitchhike to the barn and climb to the loft under the peak of the roof, armed with a sleeping bag and a six-pack. She was amoral more than immoral, decisive and profane, as unapologetic as her horse. She was as confident as I was anxious; she was a law unto herself.

The barn on the corner was all that was left of an eighteenth century farm losing the battle with an upper middle-class suburb. Planes screamed into the sky beyond the entrance to the air force base only a few hundred yards away: Hanscom Field and M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory. But goddesses only viewed their surroundings for the opportunities offered. They bought cigarettes from the buildings’ vending machine for fifty cents a pack. They stole traffic cones for their mounted obstacle courses. They climbed the chain-link fence at the back of the barn to free dogs from the pen that served as Lexington’s pound. The rangers at Fiske Hill National Park were powerless to stop the girls from using the historic rock foundation as a practice jump.

I first met the goddesses in the 1960’s when I was six years old. I was desperate to visit the horses. I followed a friend and we biked the half-mile down Wood Street. We straddled our bikes at the edge of the road and gazed at the red castle, the white shingled roof and tall green sliding door. Above the door was a row of small transom windows, New England-style. A jungle of sumac hid small outbuildings; the scattered boulders of stone walls between them dated back to the Revolution.

A self-possessed girl with long hair led a rawboned horse out of the barn.

“Can we have a ride?” my friend asked.

“No. Get out of the way. My horse kicks.” She lit a cigarette, vaulted onto a back higher than our heads and wheeled her steed down a rocky lane that led to the woods as we stared. Goddesses had no time for mortals.

When I was ten, my mother let me buy a pony from a family we knew at church. He was small and spoiled; later the girl said he bit her so she christened him after one of Mary Baker Eddy’s Glossary entries in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures: RED DRAGON. Error; fear; inflammation. My pony was named after evil.

Dragon bared his teeth and charged at me in the pasture when I came to catch him. He nipped when I scrambled on, bucked when I wanted to go faster, and scraped me off in the bushes. In Sunday school I'd read, All of God’s creatures, moving in the harmony of Science, are harmless, useful, indestructible. Dragon threw his head and smashed me in the face as I bridled him. I didn’t have a saddle the first year so I rode bareback with one hand anchored in thick mane. When I fell, Dragon flattened his ears and snapped at me.

After a few months of glorified pony rides, I coaxed Dragon behind the tails of the older girls’ horses. The goddesses led and I followed. Three- and four-hour rides improved Dragon’s behavior but when he was tired he’d lie down right on the trail.

“Break a stick off a bush and smack him,” a goddess commanded from her tall gelding. She took a drag on her cigarette. “Make him get up. Show him who’s boss.”

Dragon’s sweat soaked through my pants and made my seat and legs sticky. Deerflies droned in the woods. Under the power lines near the highway the air smelled like sweet fern and wild blueberries. Dragon’s little red ears flicked back and forth, or pointed straight forward in alarm or curiosity. When a goddess splashed into a local reservoir to swim her horse illegally, I tamped down my guilt and kicked my pony forward, then laughed and clung as he bounded like a dolphin.

Cars streamed from the base and Lincoln Lab on summer evenings. The Star Spangled Banner echoed over loudspeakers in the distance. Outside the barn, one of the horse goddesses lit an extra cigarette and passed it to me. She sighed and shook her head when all I could do was cough and choke on my guilt.

At home, I draped my pants on the radiator to dry so I could wear them again. The seat and inside of the legs were crusted brown with dirt, a bareback rider’s badge of pride.

My mother always snatched them away to the washing machine. Sometimes she said, “I know that you know who you are.

A spiritual idea above the influence of mortal illusion, according to our church.

I squirmed. Once, I’d seen a huge portrait of Mary Baker Eddy on a Sunday school field trip; her painted eyes fastened on you and followed you around the room. It was exactly how I lived.

Sometimes I felt myself whimper, my front paws up on a religious chain link fence, like one of the strays the town held at our barn. The pound was a little concrete room tacked onto the barn’s far end. When the barn was quiet, a horse goddess would climb to the weak spot on one corner and slither inside. She’d boost a dog up to another girl who hoisted it over the fence to freedom. Like the dogs, I couldn’t ask outright. But I wished the goddesses could scoop me up and liberate me too. I wanted them to save me.

The goddesses are still out there. They still roam. You’ll spot them from time to time, wild girls bareback on rawboned horses. They rein their mounts through the centers of small towns on their mission to somewhere. Watch for them now that it's spring. They're careless in traffic. They know mortals have to yield the right-of-way.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

One-eyed Jack

So. About fifteen years ago in a town not too far away, I found a playing card face-down on the pavement. I'd  once found a piece of jigsaw puzzle in that vicinity (a piece of the puzzle!) which I carried in my wallet for a long time. It had an abstract design I couldn't make heads or tails of, but it seemed significant.

The card I found had an ordinary pattern on the back. I picked it up. It was a jack of spades, a one-eyed jack in his usual finery. Well, cool. I put that in my wallet too and left it there. At some point I ditched the puzzle piece, but I liked the card. I carried it.

A year or two went by. I was in the parking lot of my small town's grocery store when I saw a playing card (face down) on the blacktop. 

Well. It had a hole punched in the middle and said "Casino Niagara." I scooped it up. There it was. A jack of spades.

Whoa. Not least because I'd recently visited Niagara Falls, and, as an evolving humanist who'd rejected gods in favor of natural wonders, found it very inspirational. All this and the jack of spades, too.

I set the first card in a safe place and began carrying the second. 

I believed there would be a third. So I waited.

Years went by.

I wondered.

I don't believe in patterns built into the universe on purpose by a benevolent Designer. I did back when I was a Christian Scientist; not recently. I've read about chaos theory. I've seen the whorls of frost on how many window panes. I've taken the time to marvel at individual snowflakes on my sleeve on a winter day, each the same and yet different. I remember  reading the mathematical equation that estimated potential differences in crystals thus proving how our planet's total number of uniquely patterned flakes from snowstorms, glaciers and blizzards can't possibly have come anywhere close to exhausting the possible variations.

I also know that we humans by nature seek to find patterns and threads in our  universe. So when I look at Jack Frost's artwork on my winter window, I see flowers and leaves of bitter- cold flora. My jack-of-spades bug was something similar. I believed it had to do with paying attention more than a message.

So I waited. Years went by.

I never consciously gave up. I just found myself not expecting the third card. I thought, Maybe I'm the third card...maybe the search is what's important to me...Maybe et cetera. I was OK with this. Still...

More years went by.

Four years ago, I stood in the wood-fired kitchen of a friend's log cabin gourmet restaurant here in upstate New York when I saw the card (face down) on her window sill. Pattern similar to the first I'd found. Normal playing card.

Yeah, I thought. There is no way. It's not a jack of spades. But I have to turn it over. I don't want to see the pattern fail, but I'm OK with it. It's amazing enough that there's a third card in my path, the only feral, wayward playing cards I've ever come across.

And yet I knew as I flipped it over: hello, jack. His one eye almost winked at me.

I didn't carry that one in my wallet very long. (The woman gave me the card when I told her; how  could she not?) Instead I put the three together in a frame. An homage to the numbers.

The odds are infinite enough to form a pattern. A single clear eye is all it takes to notice. It's just a matter of watching.

Monday, April 2, 2012

My Problem With Prayer: Part 3 of 3

Prayer was a critical daily ritual when I was a kid. Every morning I studied the weekly Christian Science bible lesson and tried to focus my thoughts on  a perfect all-powerful God. I took it more seriously when I wasn't feeling well. I had to say the Daily Prayer by Mary Baker Eddy: "Thy kingdom come, let the reign of divine Truth, Life, and Love be established in me, and rule out of me all sin, and may Thy word enrich the affection of all mankind and govern them."
Then I was hit with osteomyelitis, a sledge hammer of a bone disease, when I was thirteen (and fourteen). I survived, bedridden for a year at home. I never saw a doctor about it until twenty years later. Beyond my fused knee, the crutches and my shell-shocked mind, I was left convinced that my church's teachings were infallible. I had an imperfect  leg because I'd 
failed to understand my way to perfect health. The most frustrating thing was that no matter how badly I wanted to throw myself at situation, tackle it, slam it to the ground and pin it, the only solution I was offered was more prayer...quiet, intense, inspired studying to lift my thought and bring my whole experience into the consciousness of God's spiritual universe.

So I kept praying. And I dove into the hardest physical work I could find. Physical exhaustion kept me from thinking too much for twenty years before I finally left the church. I survived my twenties galloping bottom-rung racehorses and did farm work; I stacked hay bales, pitched manure or straw, shoveled snow or shavings. My end-of-the-day drug of choice was ice cream. Lots of ice cream. Chocolate ice cream. Every night. I slept soundly, other than the twitching and jerking awake that comes with PTSD.

There's nothing as simultaneously as thrilling and lulling as the gallop of a twelve-hundred pound thoroughbred you ride standing in short stirrups, aware of everything in general and nothing in particular. One emotionally rough summer, I drove the baler when we hayed. It was both deafening and soothing to open up the tractor's throttle as the baler roared and clanked a beat that shook the whole rig. Baling required me to watch where the windrow fed in, glance behind where the bales dropped out, keep an eye out for woodchuck holes and a dozen other variables. It took a wide-angle concentration, "soft eyes" as the Centered Riding folks say. See everything without staring too hard at one thing. Prey animals use this ability to watch and then flee from danger. Quick reflexes. Like the frogs my daughter catches (sometimes) in our pond. Or like a wild horse.

I started investigating what's called natural horsemanship around the time I left Christian Science. I was grateful to find I wasn't a disembodied spiritual concept . I was part of the natural world. I didn't have to take responsibility for everything I came in contact just because I was conscious of it as I'd been taught. My transition into being mortal was rocky, but all the while I was learning similar things about horses that I'd noticed but never really considered. The way they need their herd, need a leader, need to pester and push each other all day every day to stay in a healthy pecking order that determines who survives. I've never liked  anthropomorphism. But I'm guilty of "equinizing" myself. When I stopped trying to be the image-and-likeness-of-God, I started seeing all my own prey animal traits.Yes, I'm technically a predator. But Christian Science imprinted me with fear: fear of doing wrong, embarrassing myself, shaming my family, or even of causing disease by my fear itself because that's the slippery slope of that particular church. Prayer was my obsessive compulsion. I didn't dare stop. 

Natural horsemanship required me to stop fearing and be a herd leader so strong that the most frightened or belligerent horse could respect me. I had to stop fearing, demonstrate my competence on a horse's terms in various exercises, usually on the ground at first, then on horseback. I had to relax and breathe. I had to emanate confidence, strength and leadership. In all kinds of little practice drills, I had to demonstrate such safety and presence that my horse would also breathe, relax, and wait for me to lead the way to safety. If I didn't want my horse to take charge and bolt home, I needed to learn to hold still and exhale my tension, whether at the end of the rope or on the horse's back.

That terrified, damaged creature inside me didn't want any part of it. At clinics the instructors yelled, "SLOW DOWN, Liz! Take a breath!" At home I tried to practice sitting still. I sat on a chair on the deck. OK. But if I closed my eyes and tried not to think, all the millions of words and prayers and bible stories boiled up. Screw that--I was moving! I was out of there. Prayer was the religious stick I was beaten with. It was a pressure to escape.

But I needed to figure it out. For myself as well as the horses. Horses had carried me so far, at times so fast, on their legs. Now it was time to turn and face details of my life that were just a blur from the back of a running horse. And if I succeeded, the horses would take comfort from it too.

Taming myself is still an ongoing project. I gradually coaxed myself into easing up and slowing down. As I passed forty my leg began to wear out, my joints all complained and my back was tricky. I'd gotten away by running, in a manner of speaking, from my thoughts all these years and I couldn't hold that pace. But it was OK to feel myself become methodical. And then amputation downshifted me right into diligence. I can't be quick wearing an above-knee prosthesis. I miss my agility. I miss the days of galloping at the track although I knew they weren't going to last forever. I miss the rambling trail rides that are the perks of the two-legged riders. 

But there's such relief in having turned and faced the fear that chased me so long. I have my motion-meditation. In swimming. In a smoother walking gait than I had with my own legs for thirty years. In playing my drumset, which I started three days before my amputation. I know that to relax--to let my thoughts drift--I need motion and rhythm. Who knows? Maybe I'll get back to riding more. I might be ready to take the time to learn the finer points I was in too much rush to focus on when I had two legs. My horse won't mind if we go slow. She just enjoys my company. She feels safe with me, in my herd.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Problem With Prayer: Part 2

A few months after I was able to stand upright on crutches I climbed on my crazy appaloosa and started riding. I was fifteen the summer of 1977: I'd spent a year in bed and six months in a wheelchair with a bone disease my parents and Christian Science practitioner treated only with prayer. As I crept around on my crutches with my rigid bent leg held out ahead of me, I continued to pray desperately. I wanted the perfection I was assured I could have, not just the scarred survival I'd clawed my way into. To give up on a complete HEALING through Christian Science would have been to revolt against the cause that had ruined my knee and crushed my normal transition out of childhood. My mind was as weak my twisted leg. Neither was strong enough to support me. So I went on praying.

Christian Science prayer is the mental contortion of imagining without insisting, yearning without selfishly wanting, envisioning and "opening your thought" to perfection while being one thousand percent grateful for what you have already, even this excruciating opportunity itself. It's a gentle gloved hand reassuringly resting on the back of your neck that can slip around your throat and squeeze. And squeeze. It holds the pain of your despair of failing to be HEALED exactly in balance with the agony and shame you'll feel if you try to extricate yourself. This was my experience with prayer. "Be still and know that I am God." Or else.

But on a horse? Movement. I could travel, explore, gallop and jump. Riding was motion and rhythm, freedom and flight, power and strength and speed. When my anxiety descended in the late afternoons as darkness loomed and fear clamped its hands on my shoulders, I could slip onto a horse, preferably bareback, and feel my mount settle into a loose-limbed walk down a trail or back road. It relaxed my mind; it settled my mood; it let me meet the night on my own terms. Riding gave me back the running that my legs would never manage again. And though I wasn't conscious of it, riding gave my cornered and frightened self a way to relax in peace.

I was a devout Christian Scientist straight through my twenties; the only thing I treated as seriously was hard work and riding. I'd always wanted to ride racehorses. I got my chance when a local track built for quarter horse racing opened as a training facility. It had a five-eighths mile track, a quarter-mile chute down the homestretch, and a starting gate. It also had a thousand empty stalls, acres of crumbling parking lot and a grandstand full of pigeons. There were never more than fifty horses stabled there at one time, usually only a dozen or two. But the horses needed galloping. And so did I.

Exercising meant endless circuits of the track at a full gallop, usually two, four or more laps per horse. The colts and fillies we started had to learn a steady gait to develop condition and balance before we could tap into their competitive spirit. The seasoned horses were athletes. They knew the drill, knew how to breathe and snort in time to their stride.

I loved those laps pounding along at a strong and yet effortless gallop. I'd stand balanced in my stirrups with the sun warm on my shoulders and the wide rubber-coated reins snug in my hands. I learned to breathe in time to the stride so I wouldn't get a stitch in my side the way I used to back when I could It was an antidote to the inward spiral of fear and concentration when I prayed. It set free the caged animal in my brain.

My left leg was fused slightly more open than ninety degrees. Trainers had to leg me up in a different way and I couldn't hike up my stirrups super short. But there weren’t any rules at the little nowheres-ville track. There was effective riding and ineffective. To slow an iron-mouthed veteran I stood in my stirrups like a water-skier and leaned my weight against the bit, or gathered the reins short and set my hands down on the horse’s neck to use his muscle as leverage against him.

The irony of those countless, steady laps was that it was the rehearsal for a flat-out racing pace. Each day galloping taught the colts about the setting and the company of horses running beside them. It prepped their muscles to breeze. The methodical, tiring, and usually--fortunately--uneventful laps were the building blocks of speed.

When I “worked” a horse, I crouched low over his withers and let his strides quicken until the beat began to sing, began to inspire him to pass his stablemate. To stampede down the stretch in front of a hollow grandstand full of  birds and a woodchuck in the infield. Horses understand the goal of getting there first. The need to outrun and not be slowest is how this animal evolved. To survive. Honing that need for flight into a celebration of power transcended wild fear, harnessed  and guided it. Riding horses that loved to run on that equine autobahn of track was the most powerful thing I'd ever done. It was a rush unlike anything else.

I didn't view it as another form of flight from my own issues until years later. I didn't recognize my own inability to be still, like a nervous horse that won't stand. Like a horse, I've felt the paralysis when movement is frustrating and impossible, when I cannot step forward as asked. But I've also had a need for pounding hoofs and reactive horses that bolt rather than balk. Don't force me to hold still. I can't. I won't.

Eventually I had to learn to be quiet, and breathe, and stand my ground. More on that tomorrow in Part 3 when I wrap up this meditation on prayer.

My dad took this photo of me working Rite On John up the stretch at Tioga Park in 1985. Those were the days, you know?